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Why reporting corruption on your PD can be bad for your career

Speaking up against corrupt or criminal activity in your ranks can be the most courageous and dangerous thing you’ll ever do as a police officer

Reporting the misconduct of another police officer is a no-brainer at first examination. You know it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re in a dysfunctional organization, the real-world consequences of doing so may be grave.

These repercussions came to mind when I was reading my friend Doug Wyllie’s excellent column on reporting corrupt cops.

Every word he says in that column is true. Reporting misconduct is something every cop should do, for the good of his or her agency and the community it serves. But doing so may be the most courageous and dangerous thing you’ll ever do as a police officer.

Frank Serpico’s Legacy
More than forty years ago, Frank Serpico reported a widespread and well-established pattern of bribes and payoffs operating within his agency, the New York Police Department. He was a hero in the public eye for taking a stand against corruption, when it would have been so much easier (and more profitable) to go along with the program.

There was a book, a movie, and a TV show that all carried his name.

Predictably, he wasn’t so well-regarded within the ranks. Many of his fellow officers regarded him as a rat and a traitor. He suffered a disabling injury when his backup officers didn’t come to his aid during a drug raid. Some accounts even suggest he was set up to be killed, and the operation didn’t quite come off as planned.

Most serious misconduct officers encounter today isn’t as dramatic or organized as what Serpico experienced. It’s more likely to involve cops using drugs or alcohol on duty, extorting sexual favors from people who would otherwise be getting arrested, sleeping on the job, or padding their time cards with overtime they never worked.

When these things occur in a vacuum — and they sometimes do — reporting the misconduct usually has the desired and expected effect. The malefactor is shown the door, and the cop who reported goes on about his business. Everyone is happy to know that sort of thing isn’t tolerated at work.

However, anyone who has worked at a police agency knows that not all cops are treated equally. There are usually a few cops who seem coated with Teflon. Nothing ever sticks to them. They have a friend or relative in a position of influence — called a “rabbi” in circles that have nothing to do with religious preference.

Maybe the “bad cop” just has some dirt on the person in power — the influential person protects the other guy in order to protect himself.

A Hypothetical Scenario
Here’s a test scenario to see if your agency is like this: imagine that an out-of-town cop comes into your station. He’s on vacation, and looking for an address in your town, one that is unfamiliar to him. He sees an occupied patrol car parked behind a closed business, and approaches to ask directions.

The driver doesn’t notice or get out to greet him, as he is distracted by the charms of a female passenger engaged in an act that a past president didn’t think was sex.

The visiting cop sees and remembers the name on the officer’s name tag.

What are the consequences if you — or the visiting cop — report this to your chief or sheriff?

If your answer is dependent on the question, “Who is it?” then you work in one of those dysfunctional agencies.

Incidentally, if your reaction is to chew out the visiting cop for ratting out a brother officer, then you’re the problem.

A Self-Perpetuating Problem
Agencies with problems like these tend to be self-perpetuating. The people in power value personal loyalty over skills or leadership qualities. So, when someone is due to be promoted, the person they trust — not the one who is best suited for the job — is chosen.

Those people eventually move into the executive offices, and they seek out others who will play the game they’ve written.

If a would-be Serpico tries to disrupt the network, he’ll be frustrated at best, and at worst vilified. Any evidence he submits will get lost or be deemed unreliable.

The accused officer will be characterized as “going through a lot right now” and his conduct will be forgiven or given a token punishment. Meanwhile, someone starts a “package” on the honest cop, documenting anything he does that can be interpreted as bad — ignoring anything good.

If he manages to keep his job, promotions or favorable assignments will be unattainable. He’ll serve his days constantly under the microscope.

Strong, ethical leadership can break this pattern, but the leader has to get into office in order to do any good. It can and does happen, but only if the honest cops keep up the good fight. Making the decision to speak up can be the most courageous and lasting thing a police officer can do, but it might be many years before anyone recognizes that.

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.
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